What is the Definition of A Down in American Football?

American football, a sport loved by millions, relies on a unique concept known as a “down” to progress the game and maintain its strategic aspect. As an integral part of the rules, understanding the basics of a down is essential for both casual and dedicated fans alike. A down refers to an individual play commencing with the snap of the ball and concluding when the player with the ball is tackled, steps out of bounds, or any other action concluding the play.

The team in possession, called the offense, is given four attempts, or downs, to advance a minimum of 10 yards. Successfully achieving this grants them a new set of four downs, which is called a “first down.” This continues until the offense scores or relinquishes possession. The strategic management of downs can have a significant impact on a team’s success, making it a crucial element in the tactics deployed by coaches and players during a match.

Key Takeaways

  • Downs are fundamental to American football, dictating the flow of the game
  • A team is given four downs to advance at least 10 yards to secure a first down
  • Strategic down management influences a team’s success and overall game play strategy

Basics of a Down

A down in American football is a single play, where the offensive team has the opportunity to advance the ball towards the opponent’s end zone. Each play begins with the snapping of the ball and ends when the player with the ball is either tackled, goes out of bounds, or after a team scores.

The offensive team has four downs, or opportunities, to move the ball forward at least 10 yards. These four plays are referred to as 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th down. The number of yards the offensive team needs to gain in order to secure a new set of downs is referred to as the distance. For example, if the team starts their set of downs needing to cover 10 yards, this situation might be referred to as “1st and 10.”

If the offensive team successfully covers the required distance within their four plays, they are granted a new set of four downs to continue moving towards the end zone. This is called a first down. Conversely, if the team fails to cover the necessary distance within their four downs, they must either punt the ball away to their opponents or attempt a field goal, depending on their position on the field.

It is crucial for the offensive team to strategize and choose the most effective plays during each down to maximize their chances of moving the ball forward and eventually scoring. The defensive team, on the other hand, must try to anticipate the offensive team’s plays, stopping their advancement and ideally forcing a turnover in possession.

In essence, the down system in American football serves as the foundation for the game’s strategic elements and creates a dynamic and ever-changing contest between the two teams.

Types of Downs

First Down

A first down is the initial opportunity for the offensive team to advance the ball 10 yards or more. It begins with the center snapping the ball to the quarterback, who can then pass, handoff, or run the ball themselves. The goal of the offense is to gain at least 10 yards during the first down in order to receive a new set of four downs.

Second Down

If the offense fails to reach the 10-yard mark during the first down, they progress to the second down. The number of yards left to gain is reduced by the yardage gained on the first down. The offensive team continues with their strategy to advance the ball, attempting to reach the 10-yard mark or score a touchdown. If they succeed in gaining the required yards, they receive a fresh set of four downs.

Third Down

Should the offensive team fail to gain the necessary yards during the second down, they move on to the third down. The team now has two remaining chances to advance the ball, either by gaining the remaining yards to obtain a first down or by scoring. On a third down, the offense may opt for a high-risk play to cover more ground or employ a safer strategy to better their chances on the fourth down, if necessary.

Fourth Down

The fourth down is the final opportunity for the offensive team to make progress. If the team is close to the end zone or first down marker, they may attempt a high-stakes play to score or gain the needed yards. However, if the team is far from the first down marker, they often choose to punt the ball to the opposing team, sacrificing their possession to improve their field position and make it more challenging for the other team to advance the ball. Alternatively, the offense may elect to attempt a field goal if they are within an appropriate distance from the goal posts.

Creating a First Down

Gaining Yardage

In American football, a down is a single play or opportunity for the offense to advance the ball toward the opposite endzone. An offense has four downs to move the ball at least 10 yards downfield. If the offense succeeds in achieving 10 yards or more in these four plays, they are awarded a new set of four downs called a “first down.” Gaining yardage is crucial for offensive success as it allows the team to maintain possession and move closer to scoring.

The offense can gain yardage through various methods, such as running the ball, completing a pass, or exploiting defensive penalties. Some common strategies include running plays with the quarterback handing off the ball to a running back, and passing plays where the quarterback throws the ball to a receiver. The goal is to use these offensive strategies effectively to reach or surpass the 10-yard requirement for a first down.


In addition to gaining yardage through athletic plays, penalties can also impact the progress of a first down. There are two main types of penalties: offensive and defensive.

Offensive penalties typically result in a loss of yardage or down, making it more difficult for the offense to achieve a first down. Examples of offensive penalties include holding, false starts, and offensive pass interference. These require the offense to gain additional yardage or forfeit a down to reach the first down marker.

Defensive penalties, on the other hand, can sometimes work in the offense’s favor, resulting in an automatic first down or additional yardage for the offense. Some common defensive penalties include defensive pass interference, offside, and defensive holding. These penalties may be enough to automatically award the offense a first down, or simply move them closer to the first down marker.

In both cases, penalties play a pivotal role in creating a first down. They can either hinder or assist an offense’s progress toward a first down and, ultimately, influence the outcome of the game.

Down Management Strategies

Offensive Approaches

In American football, offensive teams need to develop strategies for effective down management. One key objective is to gain at least 10 yards within four downs to secure a new set of downs and enhance the probability of reaching the end zone. Teams often employ a mix of rushing and passing plays that rely on the strengths of their players and exploit the weaknesses of the opposing defense.

Running the ball can be a safer option, controlling the time of possession and wearing down the opposing defensive line. This grind-it-out approach can involve utilizing ground yards with both short and medium gains to methodically move down the field.

In contrast, some teams prioritize passing attacks to advance quickly, capitalizing on faster receivers and a strong-armed quarterback. The potential for big plays and rapid scoring increases, but so does the risk of interceptions or incomplete passes, which result in lost downs.

Defensive Approaches

Defensive teams also need to strategize for managing downs to prevent the opposing offense from marching down the field and scoring. It’s crucial to assess the opponent’s tendencies and adjust the defensive plan accordingly.

One approach is a conservative or “bend but don’t break” strategy, where the defense grants short yardage gains but eventually stiffens in the red zone to minimize the likelihood of touchdowns. This tactic aims to limit both big plays and clock control by the offense, incentivizing them to settle for field goals or punts.

Alternatively, aggressive down management on defense involves pressuring the quarterback with frequent blitzes and attempting to cause turnovers. Such strategies can be high-risk, high-reward, causing more incompletions and sacks but potentially leaving the defense exposed to big gains if caught off-guard.

In summary, down management strategies in American football are vital for both offensive and defensive teams. Wise decisions, based on personnel skills and the situational context, can have a significant impact on a game’s outcome.

Impact of Downs on Game Play

Downs play a crucial role in American football, governing the flow of the game and creating the need for various offensive and defensive strategies. Each team has four downs or opportunities to advance the ball 10 yards. If a team can successfully move the ball 10 yards or more, they are awarded a new set of downs, enabling them to continue their offensive drive.

The first down is the initial play in the sequence, and teams generally use this opportunity to test their opponent’s defensive formations and strategies. The more yards a team gains on the first down, the less pressure they face in the subsequent downs to reach the required yardage for a new set of downs.

The second and third downs are critical for determining the offensive play calls. If a team is successful in making substantial yardage gains on the first down, they might opt for shorter passing or running plays to secure the remaining yardage needed for a new set of downs. Conversely, if a team is struggling to advance the ball, they may resort to long passes or trick plays to gain the necessary yardage quickly.

On the fourth down, a team faces a significant decision: either attempt to gain the required yardage or surrender possession of the ball. If a team is short of the required yardage and the end zone, they will generally punt the ball to the opposing team. However, if the team is close to the end zone or in a desperate situation, they may choose to “go for it” on the fourth down, risking a turnover for the chance to score or extend their offensive drive.

In summary, downs significantly impact the strategic decisions made by teams during a game of American football. They dictate the pace of the game, the play calls, and, ultimately, contribute to the outcomes of offensive drives.

Historical Evolution of Downs

In the early days of American football, the rules regarding downs went through several changes. In 1898, the touchdown was set at five points, and in 1904, the field goal changed to four points from five. The sport was notorious for the dangers involved in “momentum plays,” where offensive linemen locked arms and charged full-speed into the defense.

In 1912, the game transitioned from three downs to four downs to gain ten yards, making the play more strategic. Additionally, head linesmen started using a box with numerals 1, 2, 3, or 4 on the four sides to denote the downs – this innovation led to the term “down box.” The down box allowed linesmen to mark the spot of the ball and indicate the current down to both players and fans.

The down system in football consists of a series of four downs: first, second, third, and fourth. These downs are attempts used by the offense to advance the ball down the field to reach a new line to gain, which is typically marked ten yards from the snap of the first down. A yellow line on television broadcasts shows the line to gain for viewers. If an offense meets or surpasses the line to gain within their four downs, they retain possession and receive a new set of downs to continue advancing towards the end zone.

Overall, these changes to the down system in American football helped improve the game’s strategic elements and safety factors. As a result, the down system has become an integral part of the game that players, fans, and coaches understand and appreciate.